Ernest Ranglin & The Birth Of Ska

Bill King Ernest Ranglin
Bill King & Ernest Ranglin

Jamaica’s Ernie Ranglin & The Birth Of Ska

Interview: Bill King

Early this past week I found myself at Sidedoor Recording Studio, Toronto, playing keyboards on a new album for guitarist/composer, arranger Ernest Ranglin.
Now 82, and still committed to music of his own invention, Ranglin spun those sweet guitar lines through ten originals built around reggae and ska with Charlie Parker style bebop melodies on top. Tuesday, my son Jesse ‘Dubmatix’ King and drummer Everton Paul cut two sides with Ernie for the Rhythm Express. I caught up with Ernie just before those sessions and had a good chat. Here’s that conversation.

Bill King: I’m a big fan of the Skatalites. There were some outstanding jazz musicians in the band. How close were you to the players?

Ernest Ranglin: I should say I was like the root of the Skatalites. There was a guy from Trinidad – Jackie Opel who came to Jamaica when I was working for a recording company; I think it was Federal at the time – also “Sir Coxsone”, Clement Dodd who was the producer and owner of Studio One. I did this recording for him that took two or three weeks – it was a reasonable size group and I had to do all those arrangements for his tunes. This is when I came back from England around 1963. The group was musicians picked from various eras and brought together. Lord Tanamo was there as part of the production team and he says, “you guys have been together for this session two or three weeks – why not keep this together as a group.” Everybody agreed and then it came to their name. They decided on Skatalites, because they were playing ska music.

B.K: How much of an impact did jazz have on the musicians of the Jamaica by then?

E.R: We were jazz orientated from a long ways back. More into bebop – those Charlie Parker days – the great Dizzy Gillespie. It was that era when we listened to Jazz at the Philharmonic. We developed this style of ska music because Coxsone had good ears. He was a part of Atlantic music. He used to supply their recordings to the Caribbean from America.
I used to play the hotels. I had a commercial group to work with. I worked the studios by day, the hotels at night. I had a guitar student Jerome ‘jah jerry’ Haynes who was the official guitarist for the Skatalites.

B.K: Does ska have its roots in jump blues – the Louie Jordan era?

E.R: Yes. Reggae came from ska too. It was something that was started before that in the 50s’ – Coxsone and me. We sat down one Sunday and created this beat and on the Monday there was this guy Theophilus Bedford and we took his tune ‘Easy Snappin’ and tried it out. I was working at the Jamaican Broadcasting at this time. They had their own studios. At night nobody used the studio so we recorded there. That was the first ska recording.

B.K: It came through experimenting with the beat?

E.R: We used to listen to a lot of New Orleans music and Jazz at Philharmonic. We worked at putting something different together on that Sunday so we could try in recording studio the next day. I did something else to mark that moment – a composition I wrote called, ‘Silky’. I was hoping they would put it on the B side because it was a new sound but they didn’t put it there. That was about 1958.
I was in Japan somewhere around 1991. I was a guest of Jump for Joy from California – the group played a lot of Ska and would come and visit Coxsone and the studios. He had a group and he invited me to play and that’s when someone came to me and asked would I autograph a record and I look at it and it’s ‘Silky.’ That was the first I ever saw it.

B.K: Did you remember the tune?

E.R: I tried, and tried, and tried then about four months ago someone sent me the original. I do now.

B.K: Stylistically – who were you listening to? Charlie Christian- Wes Montgomery?

E.R: I really wanted to have my own style. I would listen to a lot of guitar players – Charlie Christian at first. There was a fine guitar player Cecil Houdini – we used to practice together. I’m a self taught musician. I had to work the hotels to learn the tunes – I didn’t know them. Many years later I heard Django Reinhardt and enjoyed. I really listened to Nat Cole and his guitar player Oscar Moore.

B.K: It was the eras of the trio – guitar, piano and bass.

E.R:  They used to call it – the combo. I used to play in a big band, the music of Count Basie – they called them stock arrangements. My favourite was Stan Kenton. Jazz was one side of me – the other, reggae and Ska. I played this night club where a lot of musicians used to come. Some would play Latin music – some play Broadway tunes. It was really good for me. Playing in a big band I could listen to the various horn sections – the brass – the reeds. I’d go around each section during rehearsals and listen to them as they’d clean up parts. I learned how to phrase. I learned about the range the tenor and alto player played in. They key signatures – how to transpose. That was a good schooling for me. That’s how I became an arranger.

B.K: Did you communicate with players much like Mingus and Ray Charles and sing the individual horn parts stored in your head?

E.R:  No. I’d write it out and they’d rehearse. Most times – they were good readers. In my young days I think we had more serious horn players. Just listening to Kenton and Basie gave me ideas.

B.K: How about the recording studios?

E.R: We didn’t have much in way of recording studios in the early days. Eventually, Federal came up with a better set up. Fortunately, we could record at the radio stations. Today, most artists have studios in their homes.

B.K: When did you settle into Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in England?

E.R: About 1963.

B.K: You were there about nine months in the house band.

E.R: Yes. I went up there with Island Records as musical director for Chris Blackwell. I used to do a lot of arranging for a variety of recording companies. When I was at the radio station – JBC – he was touring the place and came over to me and said it looks like things are going to really happen in London. They didn’t have many people there who could do the reggae stuff so he suggested I go to England. The first horn section I used in the studio came from Ronnie Scott’s club – great musicians who can read. We did a recording for Millie Small, “My Boy Lollipop.” That was our first hit and the first time Englishmen try to play ska.
About a month later they introduce me to other musicians at Ronnie Scott’s who’d never heard me before. After playing the first night they offered me the house band gig. At first I declined. There were a lot of good guitar players around I liked to listen too. I told them these guys belong here – I just can’t come and work in their place. I suggested taking two nights and leave the other four to them. They agreed but after three weeks I found myself playing six nights a week.
These artists come from France and elsewhere who’d put down their music and everyone could read. You’d count off the tempo and the man be there with no mistakes.

B.K: The Cuban players are much the same. The music is incredibly complex – but as readers – they breeze through. That’s part of that amazing schooling.

E.R: If you are in music – you wake up and it’s music. If you are a footballer, your day is football. I notice in Australia a young fellow plays cricket – goes out every morning at least one hour and plays. Whatever you’re doing – everyday you have to do it. You can only become professional by doing.

B.K: You were born in central Jamaica – Manchester?

E.R: I was born there and left when I was about nine.

B.K: Mostly rural?

E.R: I was brought up in Kingston, left school when I was fourteen. I started playing in bands and would travel all over the island. The first group I was in I played every parish on the island, especially weekends. We’d travel by bus sometimes truck. We got a lot of exposure in my younger days.

B.K: Good crowds?

E.R: Oh yes. They’d clear a big area in the courtyards and markets. It was good for me when I was a little boy. After the big bands I really got my chance to play in combos. It was much more fun for me. Instead of just playing rhythms, I got to do more. I used to play with Baba Motto a superior musician. He was a pianist who played that lock-hand style like George Shearing. I’d play the melody on top.

B.K: Like Chuck Wayne.

E.R: Yes. It was good fun and it allowed me to solo too. I then had my own quintet – rhythm section and muted trumpet. I played so many different hotels- sometimes six months, sometimes three months.

B.K: You played bass on Prince Buster’s recordings?

E.R: Yes. I’m his bass player and arranger. If I wasn’t there he wasn’t going to do it. After every tune he’d ask my opinion. If I’m not with it, we’d do it again. He had confidence in me. We had a guy in the band named Baba Brooks – a popular soloist everyone liked for the Ska music.

I was the arranger for most of the recording companies and didn’t have much competition. I was going all over. Sometimes I hear recordings I’ve done and don’t even remember.

B.K: How do you fill the days now?

E.R: I used to do a lot of traveling – Australia, New Zealand and Europe. France and Switzerland.

B.K: Do you still enjoy?

E.R: From the middle of last year I got the feeling I was getting to eager to go to Europe. I don’t like to fight against my feelings. I see so much unrest the past few months. I’m not too eager to go into that.
Last year there was a guy who tried to scandal me from Australia. I played a festival for him about three years ago. I do a lot of stuff for WOMAD.  I have an agent in France who looks after a lot of stuff for me and I didn’t know this other guy have three or four engagements coming up for me. I didn’t like the way he was doing things, so I pull away from him. I’d had some dealings with him six years before in Holland that didn’t feel right and thought I’d give him another chance. I thought maybe he would be different; but no. I find out I have a job the 15th of March this year in Australia I didn’t know about. He decides to scandal me all over the Internet. He says I left his job for a bigger job. All through my years I never do things like that. Look how old I am now and this man try to mess me up. The guy took my advance and never consulted me. I never take a job unless I know how much it’s going to pay and the conditions. I had to get a lawyer and let him know this was wrong. He kept going at me hard until eventually it was over. It’s a little rough story!

Ernest Ranglin is one of the most recorded guitarist’s on planet earth and also the originator of ska along with Clement Dodd. Ranglin teamed up with producer/keyboardist Bill King, Jamaica to Toronto’s Everton Paul on drums and Jesse “Dubmatix” King on bass for this down home Memphis 1960s groove–”Before the Rain”, recorded at Side Door Studio January 19.

Bill King on facebook, Interview at FYI Music



About Karsten

Founder of the Irie Ites radio show & the Irie Ites Music label, author, art- and geography-teacher and (very rare) DJ under the name Dub Teacha. Host of the "Foward The Bass"-radio show at ByteFM.